My Writing Journey (part 3): Agents
A few miles across the moor from where I write this blog lies Haworth parsonage. There, more than 150 years ago, three enormously gifted sisters produced novels and poems that were monumental in their passion and originality. Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë wrote their works by hand, page after laborious page, with a quill pen, by lamplight, bent over the table in the cold dining room. When they’d finished their manuscripts they parcelled them up and sent them to London publishers.
They couldn’t do that now. No major publisher will accept any fiction that doesn’t reach them through an agent.
Agents are now the gatekeepers to publication. They are the people who act as the first filter on the vast amount of fiction produced every year, and they are the people who draw up the long list from which publishers choose what will reach the public. There are small, independent publishers who’ll take a punt on a new manuscript from an unknown author, and it’s possible to self-publish either through Amazon KDP or a company such as Troubador, like I did. But these channels have little clout and rarely raise a ripple in the huge pool of new fiction published each year. Does anybody, anywhere, know of an independently published writer who’s work has been reviewed or featured in a quality Sunday newspaper? The Bookseller? Front Row? I thought not. In publishing, as in many other things, it’s who you know that matters, and the major publishers have routes into high profile promotion that others do not.
So what does a literary agent do? The short answer is that they take manuscripts from authors, select the ones they think will be successful and place them with publishers. You can see the attraction in this for publishers. The system saves them a lot of work and costs them nothing (an agent is paid by the author from their royalties). Publishers constantly grumble about their overheads (though many of them could reduce these substantially by moving out of London), so a no-cost way of dealing with new material which an experienced judge thinks will sell is very attractive to them.
What’s wrong with that? you ask. Several things. It means that agents are the regulators of the public’s taste in fiction. They go for what they think the public will read, and so most of them are unwilling to take a risk. It’s understandable. Placing a book with a publisher takes time and hard work, and the agent gets nothing until the book is accepted. So they look at what has sold, what they think will sell, and the result is a lot of sameness in the bookshops.
Now the agent system has some strong positives. There are clearly some very good agents – for evidence of this you have only to look at the number of authors who make a point of thanking their agent in their acknowledgements, many saying that they could never have got their manuscript into a publishable state without their agent’s help. Some authors and agents form strong friendships, which continue for many years. And we have to remember that agents are very busy people; they receive hundreds – maybe thousands – of unsolicited manuscripts each year. They have to trawl through these as well as looking after their existing clients. Nevertheless, I think that the current system has many drawbacks – for authors, publishers, readers and for the agents themselves.
I’ve submitted my work to agents without success, so you could say that what follows is sour grapes, but I think not. I’ve talked with other authors who think the same as I do, so here are my gripes.
The all-powerful role of the agent as gatekeeper works against innovation, encourages writers to ape what’s currently in vogue, and stifles creativity. If the Brontës had had to rely on agents their work would probably never have got into print because their material was not in the then current fashion.
Trying to interest an agent is a slow process. It’s not unusual for an agent to take three months to respond to a manuscript. Most want to know if you’re submitting to other agents too, the implication being that they will be less interested if you are (one or two even admit this). The time scale means that an author can bring his or her work to the attention of only a handful of agents in a year. J.K.Rowling was accepted by (I’m told) the 16th agent she tried. I don’t know how long it took her but I would be surprised if it were less than three years. That’s a long time for an author to be touting their work, and if it was in vogue when they started it probably isn’t later.
Some agents, by no means all, have an air of careless arrogance. In my experience only a minority have the courtesy to acknowledge the receipt of a submission. If the work is rejected the nicer ones will give a reason or two, maybe tell you that your manuscript has merit but it’s not for them, and wish you luck elsewhere. However, a substantial number don’t even bother to tell you their decision, simply saying you should assume that if you haven’t heard from them in x weeks they’re not interested. Agents call the collection of manuscripts awaiting their attention the ‘slush pile’! Now a lot of it may well be rubbish, but to apply the blanket term ‘slush’ to work that people have laboured over for years, before they’ve even read it? Really? As another example of agent arrogance, one, advising authors on the content of the letter which should accompany a submission, says the supplicant should ‘think of it as a letter of application for a job’. Again, really? Who’s working for who here? Surely it’s the author that’s seeking to employ the agent, not the other way round. What’s that phrase about power going to the head?
In short, the choke-hold that agents currently have on the literary world works against the democratisation of authorship and against creativity. Of course, you can point to many agented authors who defy this assessment and are brilliantly original. I’m talking generalities here.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a former literary agent about the difficulties I was finding trying to find somebody to represent my work. His response was very much off the record (he still works with publishers) so I can’t name him. However, he said my main problems are that I’m a white, Caucasian male, and that I’m too old. This man is not racist or elitist, in fact he’s a devoted Guardian reader, but the point he was making is that my CV is too uninteresting (the word he used was ‘average’) to stand out from the crowd. I would be in with a better chance if I were from an ethnic or cultural minority, or LGBT (well, perhaps not the ‘L’!). He suggested that my prospects would be better still if I were a woman. We had an entertaining few minutes discussing whether I should submit under a female name, and musing on how, if I did, it would be redressing the balance because the Brontës (and other women) were forced to pretend they were men in order to submit their work. Lastly, the age thing. My friend pointed out that it usually requires a lot of work from the agent to get a manuscript into a state where a publisher will consider it. Therefore agents are ideally looking for young writers who will produce a lot and whom they’ll represent over a long period. An older writer, who may have no more than two or three books in them (or maybe even just one), is not an attractive proposition. Nobody can say this openly because it’s discrimination. I simply report what somebody with experience of that world said.
Of course, having written the above I realise that I’ve probably blown any chance I might have had of ever getting an agent to represent me! If so I’ll have to live with that, and continue to self-publish. Paradise Girl won’t reach as many people as it might if a mainstream publisher had handled it, but I’m truly grateful to those who have sought it out and read it, and even more to those who have told me, directly or through reviews, that they think it has merit. And after all, the whole business is about readers. Isn’t it?
My July blog will discuss what I call the ‘author support industry’; that is, those who operate on the periphery of writing and publishing by evaluating manuscripts, offering access to agents and guaranteeing exposure through social media.